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17 Ways to Fix this Common Type of Social Anxiety

Here are 17 tips to manage a common form of social anxiety.

Whether it’s making an announcement at your volunteer organization, giving a toast at a wedding, or giving a presentation in front of a class, you’ve undoubtedly experienced anxiety about public speaking. Often, there’s a lot at stake, and when you do well, you can stand to benefit your career and personal life in significant ways.

As a subtype of social anxiety, the most common form of anxiety disorder, the American Psychiatric Association (2013) estimates that extreme fear of public speaking occurs in 7 percent of the adult population. It’s this high prevalence that prompted Minnesota State University researchers Emily Bartholomay and Daniel Houlihan (2016) to develop a new measure of public speaking anxiety (PSA). The 17-item PSA Scale (PSAS) can help you assess, and then fix, whatever fears you have of talking in front of a group.

According to Bartholomay and Houlihan, PSA divides into three components: behavioral, cognitive, and physiological. The PSAS has the advantage of being a self-report measure, so that people can describe themselves. Ideally, though, to assess the behavioral aspects of PSA, you would want to observe someone speaking and then decide whether that person is anxious on the basis of such nonverbal behaviors as hands shaking or voice quivering. Physiologically, you would want to hook someone up to equipment that tracks heart rate, sweat production, and perhaps electrical activity in the brain. You could measure cognitive aspects of PSA in the more straightforward way of asking people to report on the thoughts they are having at the moments before, during, and after a speech.

In the PSAS, then, the Minnesota team took on the task of translating those tough behavioral and physiological indicators into self-report items that people could use to describe themselves. The advantage of having these types of items is that they are ones you could potentially identify in your own behavior and apparent physiological arousal rather than having someone watch or track you while you have to stand up in front of a crowd.

The true indication of a good scale is that it also correlates with other forms of what it’s supposed to in terms of other forms of the same construct (“convergent validity”) and doesn’t correlate with what it’s not supposed to (“discriminant validity”). It should also correlate with previous scales that purport to measure the same construct (“concurrent validity”). In the case of the PSAS, there were two prior measures developed by other researchers that capture at least some components of the PSAS and so provided a good test of this form of validity.

After testing the PSAS on a sample of 375 psychology undergrads, Bartholomay and Houlihan felt that they had hit all three marks of a new measure’s validity. The PSAS scales correlated well with prior, shorter, measures of PSA (concurrent), was correlated with a measure of anxiety over social interaction and another of general anxiety (convergent) and did not correlate with measures of depression (discriminant). We can feel confident, then, that the PSAS did what it was supposed to and can now move on to the 17 items themselves.

Rate yourself on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely) for each item and then we’ll look at how to score yourself:

1. Giving a speech is terrifying

2. I am afraid that I will be at a loss for words while speaking

3. I am nervous that I will embarrass myself in front of the audience

4. If I make a mistake in my speech, I am unable to re-focus

5. I am worried that my audience will think I am a bad speaker

6. I am focused on what I am saying during my speech

7. I am confident when I give a speech

8. I feel satisfied after giving a speech

9. I do not have problems making eye contact with my audience

10. My hands shake when I give a speech

11. I feel sick before speaking in front of a group

12. I feel tense before giving a speech

13. I fidget before speaking

14. My heart pounds when I give a speech

15. I sweat during my speech

16. My voice trembles when I give a speech

17. I feel relaxed while giving a speech

Before you go on, reverse your scores for items 6,7,8,9, and 17. If your total is 52, (a little less than 3 per item), you’re average. Scores above 65 will put you in the upper range of the scale, based on the numerical distribution of the sample’s scores, and if you score under 40, you can talk to anybody about anything in a public situation. As we know, though, even people who might on average have relatively low PSA, there may also be situations or aspects of their anxiety that can create problems.

The five most clearly identifiable items that you can change are the cognitive. Your body may react with physiologically high levels of anxiety not because of the situation itself, but because of the way you construe the situation. Telling yourself that a situation is terrifying, as in item 1, will only guarantee that it becomes so. However, you can work on the remaining 16 as well, with these tips.

Cognitive and behavioral items you can change:

  1. See public speaking as an opportunity to shine, not to be terrified.
  2. If you really do tend to forget things while speaking, make a few notes.
  3. Are you certain you will embarrass yourself? Have you done so before? Don’t other people? There’s no need to convince yourself ahead of time that you’ll make a fool of yourself or even if you do, that others will even notice.
  4. Making mistakes is an ordinary part of life. Accept that you will and do make mistakes, and you’ll be able to move on quickly from any that you happen to make.
  5. Worrying that people will think you’re a bad speaker is natural, but ask yourself what makes someone a “bad speaker.” When you hear someone else speak, do you judge them automatically or do you listen to what they say? Most people will listen to you that way as well.
  6. This item was reverse scored, but it reinforces points 2 and 4 above.
  7. Again, this was reverse scored, but it should tell you that there are advantages to pumping yourself up before a speech and feeling as confident as you can.
  8. Another reverse scored item: Feeling satisfied with a job well done, even if you made a mistake or two, will help you do better the next time you have to speak in front of others.
  9. It’s great if you don’t have trouble making eye contact, but if you do, use this as a tool to help yourself feel more relaxed.

Physiological items you can change:

Items 10-17 all ask you to rate what your body does while you’re speaking publicly. Hands shaking, feeling tense, fidgeting, having your heart go thump-thump, sweating, and speaking with a trembling voice are signs of anxiety. If you observe them in yourself, move back up to items 1-8 and figure out which thoughts are causing your body to react this way.

Given the frequency of a diagnosable PSA disorder, as well as the likelihood that we all suffer a little bit from time to time when we have to give a speech or make remarks in front of others, these 17 tips seem like great practical ways to improve your life. Personal fulfillment can come from many sources. Being able to overcome this very correctable problem will help you find one more, and potentially life-changing, route.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Bartholomay, E. M., & Houlihan, D. D. (2016). Public Speaking Anxiety Scale: Preliminary psychometric data and scale validation. Personality and Individual Differences, 94211-215. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.01.026